Two missing Afghans in jail following flight from Charlottesville

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Four women from a group of 21 visiting Afghans disappeared from Charlottesville before their trip was cut short June 6. Officials say two were intercepted trying to cross into Canada. (Photo by UVA Today) 

The Federal government continues to investigate the disappearance of four Afghans from a group visiting UVA earlier this month, but even with at least two of the women in custody, officials have remained quiet on why the women fled the educational program.

The State Department and the nonprofit Relief International, which jointly oversaw the group, have shared little since the women went missing from the group of 21 individuals—mostly young women working with nonprofits in Afghanistan—who were visiting the Center for Politics on a diplomatic trip to learn about democracy and the rule of law.

But Center spokesman Kyle Kondik confirmed that by the morning of Saturday, June 2, two women had slipped out of their rooms at the Cavalier Inn. The Center was alerted by Relief International officials the next day, said Kondik. The following Monday night, another woman disappeared, followed by a fourth the next night.

That’s when the State Department pulled the plug on the trip, cutting it short before a planned tour of historical East Coast cities. The delegation was bused to D.C. Wednesday, June 6 and flown back to Afghanistan—minus four members.

As the State Department and FBI began investigating, officials said they didn’t believe any of the four posed a threat to U.S. security, saying they were motivated by concern for the women’s safety. While the State Department initially named two of the women—Zuhra Sadat and Hamida Sayedkhan—officials refused to release the names of the others.

It wasn’t until last week that any more news broke. On Tuesday, June 12, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents patrolling near the town of Champlain, New York, came across two of the women walking north toward the Canadian border, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees CPB. When approached, the pair confirmed that they were Afghans, and said that they had intended to walk into Canada. They were detained, and DHS said they are now being held at the Clinton County Jail in Plattsburg, New York. Their names have not been released.

At least one report said three women had been detained, and while officials haven’t confirmed that they have a third in custody, DHS has indicated that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement may have been involved in intercepting one of the four.

Everyone involved has clammed up about what will happen to the women in custody and details on who remains at large. The State Department has repeatedly referred all comment to the FBI, saying the matter is now one of law enforcement. The FBI has in turn refused to release information, pushing off that responsibility to the Departments of State and Homeland Security. Relief International did not return calls for comment.

The women’s motivations for leaving aren’t clear, but officials told reporters last week that some of those participating in the UVA program had said they were concerned that their trip to the U.S. could put them in danger when they returned home. It’s a familiar situation for the State Department, which last year ended a foreign exchange program that brought Afghan students to U.S. high schools after dozens of minors fled for Canada, which has long had one of the world’s least restrictive asylum policies.

UVA’s Center for Politics has expressed concern for the women who left, but said responsibility lay with Relief International and the State Department. A second trip to UVA by a separate Afghan group has been cancelled in the wake of the incident, said Kondik, “but we fully expect to continue the program and have similar groups come in the future.”

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